OTTAWA – Former prime minister Pierre Trudeau’s public life was influenced by the many women in his private life, a new biography suggests.
Historian John English suggests the late Liberal icon’s one electoral defeat in 1979 can be traced to the emotional turmoil following the break up of his tempestuous marriage to Margaret Trudeau.
And he credits actress Margot Kidder with influencing Trudeau’s decision to launch a global peace initiative during his final months in office.
English, who had exclusive access to Trudeau’s extensive personal papers, his family and close friends, draws those conclusions in the newly released Just Watch Me: The Life of Pierre Elliott Trudeau 1968-2000.
The book, the second volume of English’s exhaustive biography, focuses primarily on Trudeau’s almost 16-year stint as prime minister – from Trudeaumania in 1968, to defeat in 1979, to resurrection in 1980 and the ensuing battle with Quebec separatists which culminated in patriation of the Constitution with a Charter of Rights.
But it also offers tantalizing glimpses into the private life the enigmatic Trudeau guarded jealously, particularly his romantic liaisons with a series of glamorous women – including actresses Barbra Streisand, Kim Cattrall and Gale Zoe Garnett and classical guitarist Liona Boyd – and the impact some of them had on his political career.
English posits that it was the breakdown of Trudeau’s marriage that caused him to resist enormous pressure to call an election in the fall of 1977, when his popularity outstripped that of novice Progressive Conservative Leader Joe Clark. His aides and strategists argued persuasively that all the stars were aligned for a Liberal victory and worried that circumstances might not be so propitious the following year.
But Trudeau rejected their advice.
“It was Trudeau’s worst political decision,” English writes.
English says senior aides reported that the prime minister was “unusually and extraordinarily unpredictable” during that period. And he concludes that Trudeau, his personal life in turmoil due to the dissolution of his marriage earlier that year, simply couldn’t summon the necessary concentration.
“Reasons of the heart, sad ones, explain Trudeau’s lack of will for an election in the late summer of 1977.”
“That essential discipline, the careful rehearsals, and the intense focus were simply not possible for him in 1977. He maintained an impressive silence about his private life, resisted those who called him to the political stage for his greatest performance and gathered his resources to fight another day.”
As it turned out, Trudeau waited until 1979 to call an election. Clark won, though his minority government wouldn’t last a year.
Margaret, since diagnosed as bi-polar, was photographed dancing with abandon at a swish New York night club the night her ex-husband went down to defeat.
English recounts in painful detail Trudeau’s resentment and bitterness after his marriage collapsed, including his initial refusal to give Margaret any money once they formally separated. That led to a scuffle at one point, in which she “tried to scratch out his eyes” and Trudeau, a brown belt in judo, pinned his screaming ex-wife to the ground – broken up only when their three young sons came running into the room and implored their father not to hurt her.
“The incident shook both parents and they took counselling from a family therapist, undoubtedly a wise move under the complicated circumstances because, however much Margaret sometimes irritated Pierre, such occasional violence was a troubling sign of the anger and concealed furies within Trudeau’s closed self,” writes English.
Yet, Trudeau apparently craved the society of women and a parade of beauties quickly replaced Margaret.
“He flirted continually and outrageously and, despite his concern for privacy, he seemed to enjoy flaunting his attractiveness in the presence of women,” says English.
At one point, Trudeau confided to Margaret that he’d had two of his mistresses – guitarist Boyd and an unnamed chanteuse – perform at a Governor General’s reception.
Trudeau’s middle son, Alexandre, suggests that his father found “refuge” in women “from the deadly serious matters which occupied him during his day job.”
English calls this comment perceptive yet his own research suggests Trudeau did discuss serious issues of public policy with at least some of his lovers.
For instance, Trudeau and Deborah Coyne, a constitutional adviser to then Newfoundland premier Clyde Wells, came together over their shared opposition to the Meech Lake accord. Their union produced Trudeau’s only daughter, Sarah.
When Trudeau approved testing of cruise missiles over Canadian territory in 1983, one of his paramours at that time – Margot Kidder, an actress and peace activist – took it upon herself to persuade him to reconsider.
While he maintained that Canada had no choice as a member of NATO, Trudeau nevertheless invited Kidder to a dinner during a visit to Washington, in which she “argued vehemently with senior Reagan administration officials while he urged her on by squeezing her thigh each time she scored a point,” English writes.
Kidder pressed Trudeau to meet with anti-nuclear activist Helen Caldicott. She taunted him about being on “the other side” but, as she put it in one letter, “You’re a potential ally. I’ll get you on our side if it kills me.”
“Slowly,” writes English, “Pierre began to shift to her side.”
Pressured by Kidder, harassed by anti-nuclear protesters on Parliament Hill and worried about the possibility of a nuclear war, Trudeau launched a personal peace initiative in the fall of 1983. He planned to meet with the heads of the five nuclear superpowers and other foreign leaders, trying to tone down the belligerent Cold War rhetoric and kickstart negotiations for an expanded non-proliferation agreement.
His initiative won accolades from Kidder, as well as Streisand and Garnett, among others. But Canadian pundits were skeptical about his sincerity and English himself concludes that Trudeau’s impact on the end of the Cold War was “marginal.”
With his poll numbers down and his caucus in open revolt, a discouraged Trudeau allowed his peace initiative to peter out in February, 1984, and announced his resignation from politics a few weeks later – even though, English says, “There can be no doubt that Trudeau wanted to stay.”